A renaissance down the boozer

Camra and English Heritage have commended a superb pub restoration in Bristol. But they can't find many other pubs worth an award. Jonathan Glancey advises them to look around. There's good among the bad
Click to follow
The Commercial Rooms, Corn Street, Bristol, a former gentleman's club built in 1810-11 and designed by the delightfully named Charles Augustus Busby, has won two well-deserved awards this week: "Best Conversion to Pub Use" and the "English Heritage Conservation Award". Both prizes are part of the annual Camra (Campaign for Real Ale)/English Heritage Pub Design Awards.

The Commercial Rooms adorn Bristol's most historic street, but their original purpose was lost when the Regency Club closed in 1995. "Now in its guise as a city-centre pub", say the Pub Design Award judges, "former members would not find too much changed ... many of the elements of the old interior survive, and have been treated with a good deal of care and respect ... it is an excellent example of the wisdom of celebrating the building you have rather than seeking to turn it into a theme nightmare."

It's impossible to disagree with the judges' decision or their sensibilities. Themed pubs and bars (except, perhaps, the imaginary one that played a starring role with John Travolta and Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction) are hideous constructions, banal beyond all redemption. Not even the effect of a half-dozen old-fashioneds or a crate of Theakston's Old Peculiar can transform them into places worth drinking in.

Yet when the Camra and English Heritage judges failed to find pubs worthy of the other two prizes in their gift - "Best Refurbishment" and "Best New Pub" - they showed themselves to be perhaps just a bit out of touch. For, over the past few years, city pubs, in particular, have begun to change, many for the better, in ways that are designed to appeal to those who would never normally choose to drink in a pub or those who have turned away from pubs because their experience of them is an ugly one - and not just in terms of architecture and design.

This trend began (apologies to non-metropolitan readers), or appeared to begin, in central London with The Eagle in Clerkenwell, a delightful, crowded and noisy pub (noisy with human voices and music that people want to listen to rather than piped pap, second-rate jukeboxes and the electronic shrieking of no-armed bandits) that also cooks superb fresh food. The Eagle combines the virtues of Amsterdam's "brown cafes", fashionable London restaurants and, as you would hope, the traditional London pub. No sticky beer-soaked carpets, no dirty lavatories, no bores bulging from cheap suits belching at the bar, as many women as men, no bar staff with attitude in dickey bows or tartan waistcoats, no horse-brasses, toby jugs or tackily framed olde-worlde prints.

Since it opened (it is rarely less than packed), The Eagle has hatched a score of worthy rivals. The Cow in chic Notting Hill and The Crown and Goose in Camden Town, are just two of the finest. This new generation of pub is slowly affecting a whole new generation of drinking holes for the better. Their success, however, turns on their independence and the obvious enthusiasm of their owners. There is nothing twee about The Eagle or The Crown and Goose, and there is nothing to stop the cranky old "give me a spit 'n' sawdust bar, a pint of Double Diamond, ten No 6s, a couple of pickled eggs and Norman behind the counter" ("London's rudest landlord", from the Coach and Horses in Soho) crowd from propping up their bars and enjoying a good old moan.

It is not that good pubs have not existed before, but the fact that, in living memory, they have been as rare as decent bar food. Most cities boast at least one extraordinarily atmospheric and unmissable traditional pub. Liverpool has The Philharmonic on Hope Street (here polite arty women on architecture crawls sneak into the gents to catch a glimpse of the celebrated Victorian marble urinals). Leeds has Whitelocks (getting a bit self-conscious), while London's Soho boasts The French House (once The Yorkminster, headquarters of the Free French forces during the Second World War and long London's most bohemian pub). Then there's Tooley's in Dublin's Poolbeg Street (beside the Liffey and the city's Venetian Gothic fire station, but outside English Heritage's remit, to be sure, as is The Crown in Belfast) and ... the list is not long, but long enough to make you thirsty.

Attempts to protect favourite old pubs or to revive them have been made since the end of the Second World War. The Architectural Review held a competition in the late Forties calling on architects to design the ideal pub. The results - machines for getting drunk in - were so discouraging that the magazine's editorial board - Hugh Casson, Nikolaus Pevsner, Hubert de Cronin Hastings and Osbert Lancaster - designed their own, the late lamented Bride of Denmark in the basement of the Architectural Press in Queen Anne's Gate, Westminster. Not long before, George Orwell had given one of his wartime talks on the wireless describing his ideal English pub in loving detail. Only in the last sentence did he reveal that that the pub was a figment of his imagination. It was simply too good to be true.

Pubs were becoming sanitised even then. In came the big breweries with gassy keg beer for gaseous men to bury the working day, and with them carpets, horse-brasses, fake beams, bright lights, television screens suspended from Artexed ceilings and barmen that called people "squire".

The reaction has been slow in coming, but the day of the themed pub or the standard-issue carpeted horror that frames tipsiness, drunkenness, vomit and brawls in towns and cities up and down the country, is dying as surely as the clubby Georgian coffee house faded out. Many of the new-wave bar-like pubs opening in the most fashionable cities (the "All Bar One" chain and ones like the "Moon Under the Water", one of the national Wetherspoon chain) can be as hackneyed as the pubs they have replaced, one architectural and interior design cliche substituted for another. The coming of The Eagle, The Cow and The Crown and Goose, however, shows what can be achieved when enthusiasm, sympathetic design and good food and drink combine.

There will always be drinkers who revel in horrid beer, stinking carpets, filthy lavatories, microwaved snacks and foul decor, because these things are as macho as a coin-in-the-slot machine selling ribbed and flavoured condoms. Equally, there is a danger of new city pubs becoming too overtly fashionable. What is certain is that Camra and English Heritage should get their drinking boots on and cast their net a little more widely when judging next year's Pub Design Awards